Your Story: A What-Not-To-Do Guide

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the more enjoyable aspects of being an intern is getting to read submissions. Being a reader is like going on a blind date; you hope that the time you spend ‘getting to know’ a story leaves you feeling content (dare I say, satisfied?) and that your potential suitor doesn’t turn up with their collar flipped up or talk too much during the meal.

There are a lot of submissions, and this year alone I have read hundreds of stories, most of which were eventually rejected. While the subjects, styles and structures were diverse, many of the unsuccessful stories had elements in common.

As a writer, I know how hard it is to pluck up the courage to submit your work to a publication; I know, too, the intense feelings of disappointment and frustration when your work is overlooked. However, as an intern and budding editor, I am able to step back from a story, put any emotional attachment or sympathy aside, and see a story for what it is.

Authors out there, whether you’ve submitted your work to us or not, give your story a once-over and consider if it is ready to be judged.
Here’s my guide to improving your chances of making that all-important, great first impression:

  • Don’t use every big word you know, particularly in the first sentence. I think there is a misconception that proving you can write in a ‘literary’ style will make you seem like a skilful storyteller. Simple language draws people in a lot quicker than you may think.
  • Don’t give us too much exposition. Establishing character(s) and setting(s) is vital, but it’s easy to overdo. When you’ve finished writing a draft, take a break from your work. Read it a few weeks (yes, weeks) later. If the story doesn’t start until two pages in, there is too much exposition. On a related note, throughout the story, don’t overlook where you’ve given more detail than the reader actually needs.
  • ‘Don’t use seven words when four will do.’ This is, embarrassingly, a quote from Ocean’s Eleven (2001). Nevertheless, it is sound advice. Brevity is a virtue in the literary world. (The first thing I check when I open a submission is the word count. Stories over 4000 words really need to justify their own length to be seriously considered by me.)
  • Don’t mimic anybody. You are not [insert your favourite author’s name here]. Trying to ‘channel’ their voice always – always – comes off sounding awful. Play to your strengths and write the best way you know how.
  • Don’t try to be controversial. Shock tactics do the exact opposite of drawing the reader in. I’ve read so many stories that start with some sort of physical or emotional explosion that I don’t even flinch anymore.
  • Don’t submit your story without editing it. You may have heard the saying ‘Writing is re-writing’; I’ll expand on that by saying ‘re-writing’ means workshopping, editing, re-drafting and/or proofreading. Your favourite author has an editor. You should too.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of grammar. Improper use of punctuation makes your story – regardless of how good it is – more difficult to read. If you’re unsure how to use a semicolon, please don’t use it. Please.

I hope that didn’t come off sounding negative or overly critical. My intention is to help you improve your work and better the chances of it being accepted. Whatever you do, know this: you must stay true to your voice – this is what reaches the audience, what keeps them invested.

Remember: [untitled] is a vehicle for popular fiction in short story form. We respect writers, but we also have a difficult task whittling thousands of entries down to a handful. It’s possible that your work is fantastic but simply doesn’t fit into our publication. Don’t give up – every story is worth telling and every story has its place in the publishing world.


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